Mark Zuckerberg faces allegations that he developed a “malicious and fraudulent scheme” to exploit vast amounts of private data to earn Facebook billions and force rivals out of business.
A company suing Facebook in a California court claims the social network’s chief executive “weaponised” the ability to access data from any user’s network of friends – the feature at the heart of the Cambridge Analyticascandal.
A legal motion filed last week in the superior court of San Mateo draws upon extensive confidential emails and messages between Facebook senior executives including Mark Zuckerberg. He is named individually in the case and, it is claimed, had personal oversight of the scheme.
Facebook rejects all claims, and has made a motion to have the case dismissed using a free speech defence.
It claims the first amendment protects its right to make “editorial decisions” as it sees fit. Zuckerberg and other senior executives have asserted that Facebook is a platform not a publisher, most recently in testimony to Congress.
Heather Whitney, a legal scholar who has written about social media companies for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said, in her opinion, this exposed a potential tension for Facebook.
“Facebook’s claims in court that it is an editor for first amendment purposes and thus free to censor and alter the content available on its site is in tension with their, especially recent, claims before the public and US Congress to be neutral platforms.”
The company that has filed the case, a former startup called Six4Three, is now trying to stop Facebook from having the case thrown out and has submitted legal arguments that draw on thousands of emails, the details of which are currently redacted. Facebook has until next Tuesday to file a motion requesting that the evidence remains sealed, otherwise the documents will be made public.
The developer alleges the correspondence shows Facebook paid lip service to privacy concerns in public but behind the scenes exploited its users’ private information.
It claims internal emails and messages reveal a cynical and abusive system set up to exploit access to users’ private information, alongside a raft of anti-competitive behaviours.
Facebook said the claims had no merit and the company would “continue to defend ourselves vigorously”.
Six4Three lodged its original case in 2015 shortly after Facebook removed developers’ access to friends’ data. The company said it had invested $250,000 in developing an app called Pikinis that filtered users’ friends photos to find any of them in swimwear. Its launch was met with controversy.
The lawsuit also claims Zuckerberg misled the public and Congress about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal by portraying it as a victim of a third party that had abused its rules for collecting and sharing data.
“The evidence uncovered by plaintiff demonstrates that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was not the result of mere negligence on Facebook’s part but was rather the direct consequence of the malicious and fraudulent scheme Zuckerberg designed in 2012 to cover up his failure to anticipate the world’s transition to smartphones,” legal documents said.
The lawsuit claims to have uncovered fresh evidence concerning how Facebook made decisions about users’ privacy. It sets out allegations that, in 2012, Facebook’s advertising business, which focused on desktop ads, was devastated by a rapid and unexpected shift to smartphones.
Zuckerberg responded by forcing developers to buy expensive ads on the new, underused mobile service or risk having their access to data at the core of their business cut off, the court case allege
“Zuckerberg weaponised the data of one-third of the planet’s population in order to cover up his failure to transition Facebook’s business from desktop computers to mobile ads before the market became aware that Facebook’s financial projections in its 2012 IPO filings were false,” one court filing said.
In its latest filing, Six4Three alleges Facebook deliberately used its huge amounts of valuable and highly personal user data to tempt developers to create platforms within its system, implying that they would have long-term access to personal information, including data from subscribers’ Facebook friends.
Once their businesses were running, and reliant on data relating to “likes”, birthdays, friend lists and other Facebook minutiae, the social media company could and did target any that became too successful, looking to extract money from them, co-opt them or destroy them, the documents claim.
Six4Three alleges up to 40,000 companies were effectively defrauded in this way by Facebook. It also alleges that senior executives including Zuckerberg personally devised and managed the scheme, individually deciding which companies would be cut off from data or allowed preferential access.
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook initially focused on kickstarting its mobile advertising platform, as the rapid adoption of smartphones decimated the desktop advertising business in 2012.
It later used its ability to cut off data to force rivals out of business, or coerce owners of apps Facebook coveted into selling at below the market price, even though they were not breaking any terms of their contracts, according to the documents.
A Facebook spokesman said: “When we changed our policy in 2015, we gave all third-party developers ample notice of material platform changes that could have impacted their applications.”
Facebook’s submission to the court, an “anti-Slapp motion” under Californian legislation designed to protect freedom of speech, said: “Six4Three is taking its fifth shot at an ever expanding set of claims and all of its claims turn on one decision, which is absolutely protected: Facebook’s editorial decision to stop publishing certain user-generated content via its Platform to third-party app developers.”
David Godkin, Six4Three’s lead counsel said: “We believe the public has a right to see the evidence and are confident the evidence clearly demonstrates the truth of our allegations, and much more.”
Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who has testified to the UK parliament about its business practices, said the allegations were a “bombshell”. He claimed to MPs Facebook’s senior executives were aware of abuses of friends’ data back in 2011-12 and he was warned not to look into the issue.
“They felt that it was better not to know. I found that utterly horrifying,” he said. “If true, these allegations show a huge betrayal of users, partners and regulators. They would also show Facebook using its monopoly power to kill competition and putting profits over protecting its users.”
A trial date for the case has been set for April 2019.
Facebook accused of conducting mass surveillance through its apps
Facebook used its apps to gather information about users and their friends, including some who had not signed up to the social network, reading their text messages, tracking their locations and accessing photos on their phones, a court case in California alleges.
The claims of what would amount to mass surveillance are part of a lawsuit brought against the company by the former startup Six4Three, listed in legal documents filed at the superior court in San Mateo as part of a court case that has been ongoing for more than two years.
A Facebook spokesperson said that Six4Three’s “claims have no merit, and we will continue to defend ourselves vigorously”. Facebook did not directly respond to questions about surveillance.
Facebook has deployed a feature of California law, designed to protect freedom of speech, to argue that the case should be dismissed. Six4Three is opposing that motion.
The allegations about surveillance appear in a January filing, the fifth amended complaint made by Six4Three. It alleges that Facebook used a range of methods, some adapted to the different phones that users carried, to collect information it could use for commercial purposes.
“Facebook continued to explore and implement ways to track users’ location, to track and read their texts, to access and record their microphones on their phones, to track and monitor their usage of competitive apps on their phones, and to track and monitor their calls,” one court document says.
But all details about the mass surveillance scheme have been redacted on Facebook’s request in Six4Three’s most recent filings. Facebook claims these are confidential business matters. It has until next Tuesday to submit a claim to the court for the documents to remain sealed from public view.
The developer is suing Facebook over the failure of its app Pikinis, which allowed users to zero in on photos of their friends in bikinis and other swimwear.
It claims the social media company lured developers and investors on to the platform by intentionally misleading them about data controls and privacy settings. As part of the January filing, it claims Facebook tracked users extensively, sometimes without consent.
On Android phones, the company was able to collect metadata and content from text messages, the lawsuit alleges. On iPhones it could access most photos, including those that had not been uploaded to Facebook, Six4Three claims.
Other alleged projects included one to remotely activate Bluetooth, allowing the company to pinpoint a user’s location without them explicitly agreeing to it. Another involved the development of privacy settings with an early end date that was not flagged to users, letting them expire without notice, the court documents claim.
One court filing, referring to a period in 2013 and 2014, alleges: “Facebook made partial disclosures around this time regarding privacy settings, but did not fully disclose that it had caused certain settings to lapse after a period of time.”
The lawsuit claims the ability to read text messages on Android phones was also partially disclosed, presented to users as a way to make logging in easier, but Facebook deployed it to collect a range of other messages and the associated metadata.
It also collected information sent by non-subscribers to friends or contacts who had Facebook apps installed on their phones, the court documents claim. Because these people would not have been Facebook users, it would have been impossible for them to have consented to Facebook’s collection of their data.
“Facebook disclosed publicly that it was reading text messages in order to authenticate users more easily … [but] this partial disclosure failed to state accurately the type of data Facebook was accessing, the timeframe over which it had accessed it, and the reasons for accessing the data of these Android users,” the complaint alleges.
“Facebook used this data to give certain Facebook products and features an unfair competitive advantage over other social applications on Facebook Platform.”
Facebook admitted recently that it had collected call and text message data from users, but said it only did so with prior consent. However the Guardian has reported that it logged some messages without explicitly notifying users. The company could not see text messages for iPhone users but could access any photos taken on a phone or stored on the built-in “camera roll” archive system, the court case alleged. It has not disclosed how they were analysed.
Facebook has not fully disclosed the manner in which it pre-processes photos on the iOS camera roll, meaning if a user has any Facebook app installed on their iPhone, then Facebook accesses and analyses the photos the user takes and/or stores on the iPhone, the complainant alleges.
Facebook has an option to “sync” photos taken on the phones with the app downloaded, which it says users need to opt into to use.